Cross-Examining Film

University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, Vol. 8, p. 101, 2009

Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 08-21

31 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2008 Last revised: 3 Apr 2009

Jessica M. Silbey

Northeastern University School of Law

Date Written: August 4, 2008

Abstract

The Supreme Court decision in Scott v. Harris holds that a Georgia police officer did not violate a fleeing suspect's Fourth Amendment rights when he caused the suspect's car to crash. The court's decision relies almost entirely on the filmed version of the high-speed police chase taken from a "dash-cam," a video camera mounted on the dashboard of the pursuing police cruiser. The Supreme Court said that in light of the contrary stories told by the opposing parties to the lawsuit, the only story to be believed was that told by the video. In Scott v. Harris, the court fell into a dangerous and common trap of believing - to the point of enshrining in our law - that film captures reality. As Justice Breyer said in oral argument of the case seemingly flabbergasted by contrary findings below: "I see with my eyes ... what happened, what am I supposed to do?"

The Supreme Court is not the first court to fall prey to the persuasive power of film. It is typical for courts and advocates to naively treat filmic evidence as a transparent window revealing the whole truth, as a presentation of unambiguous reality. But film has a history in art as a constructed medium. As filmmakers and critics have known since the beginning of cinema, film's appearance of reality is an illusion, an illusion based on conventions of representation.

How could Mr. Scott have countered the weight of the film and its persuasive power? When faced with prejudicial filmic evidence, how does an advocate undermine the assertive nature of film and its overwhelming appearance of exposure? The advocate must cross-examine the film the way she cross-examines witnesses. Because films are assertive in nature, an advocate faced with filmic evidence must treat it the way she treats other testimonial evidence, critically and with careful scrutiny. She must cross-examine the film. This article will set forth certain examination techniques using a piece of filmic evidence (linked to the article) from a recent case as an example. By doing so, it aspires to be a teaching tool for other courts and advocates in their treatment and consideration of filmic evidence.

Keywords: film, evidence, supreme court, fourth amendment, qualified immunity, trial practice, law and culture, law and humanities, law and literature, constitutional law, sixth amendment, fifth amendment, civil rights

Suggested Citation

Silbey, Jessica M., Cross-Examining Film (August 4, 2008). University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, Vol. 8, p. 101, 2009; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 08-21. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1202043

Jessica M. Silbey (Contact Author)

Northeastern University School of Law ( email )

400 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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